Church History Study Helps:
     The Early Roman Empire

The Early Roman Empire

Tiberius (14-37 AD)

Tiberius was the son of Augustus' second wife, Livia, by a previous marriage. He seems not to have been considered for the succession until other possibilities had been exhausted. Although a brilliant military commander, Tiberius had grown bitter and melancholy by the time he became emperor. He did not approve of the emperor cult, but took an interest in astrology. Tiberius disliked the trappings of power and allowed Sejanus, the prefect of the praetorian guard, to exercise effective power. But Sejanus eventually overreached himself and Tiberius had him executed in a counterplot in 31 AD. Sejanus was anti-Jewish. Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea at the time of Jesus' crucifixion was one of his appointees. Although Tiberius alienated the senate at home, he was vigilant in foreign affairs. His reign brought stability to the frontiers and he brought better order to the provinces by leaving men in office longer. Pilate's ten years in Judea exemplifies this policy.

Gaius Caligula (37-41 AD)

Gaius was the grandson of Tiberius' brother Drusus. He acquired the name Caligula (:little boots") from the soldiers among whom he grew up while his father Germanicus was on campaign in Germany. Gaius began with the favor of the senate, but he had grown up in an atmosphere of family tragedy and suspicion, and this perhaps had something to do with the signs of mental derangement that appeared before his assassination. He foolishly depleted the treasury and became convinced of his divinity, demanding divine honors. His reign was marked by conflict with the Jews. When the Jews in Jamnia tore down an altar erected to him in 40 AD, he ordered a statue of himself set up in the temple in Jerusalem. Petronius, the legate in Syria, knew what this would mean to Jewish sensibilities and successfully stalled on the order. When Caligula was assassinated in 41 AD the Jews were not the only people relieved when Caligula learned he was not a god.

Claudius (41-54 AD)

Claudius was Gaius' uncle. The praetorian guards who killed Caligula found Cladius hiding in some curtains in the palace and took him as their candidate for princeps. The negotiator between the praetorians and the senate was none other than Agrippa I, whom Claudius rewarded with an enlarged kingdom throughout Palestine. Claudius confirmed the privileges of the Jews in Alexandria, warning the Greeks there to maintain the peace and the Jews to be content with what they had and not to seek more privileges. Because of disturbances "at the instigation of one Chrestus [Christ?]", he expelled Jews from Rome. (See Seutonius, Claudius 25.4; cf Acts 18:2). Claudius' major venture in foreign affairs was the addition of Britain to the Roman empire. At home, Claudius' fourth wife, his niece Agrippina, had great influence over affairs.

Nero (54-68 AD)

According to ancient rumors, Agrippina had Claudius poisoned when he was of no further use to her in order to secure the throne for her son Nero. Nero's rule began with the quinquennium ("the five good years"), when affairs were under the control of Seneca. Paul's description of the Roman state in Romans 13 was written during this period. Agrippina was removed from influence and finally murdered, on Nero's orders, in 59 AD. Nero increasingly took the direction of affairs into his own hands. Nero also has his wife Octavia killed in 62 so he could marry Poppaea, described by Josephus as a "worshipper of God", perhaps a proselyte. His other association with things Jewish and Christian are not so pleasurable. The great fire of Rome in 64 was blamed on the Christians, now recognized as distinct from the Jews and marked for disfavor. Tradition puts the martyrdom of Peter and Paul in Rome in the aftermath of this fire. The great Jewish revolt in Palestine broke out in 66 and Vespasian was placed in charge of suppressing it. Due to Nero's extensive reign of terror, which extended beyond that of Jews and Christians, revolts broke out among the legions in the west, and when the praetorian guards rebelled in Rome, Nero fled the city and finally committed suicide, still only thirty. With his death ended the Julio-Claudian dynasty: all the emperors from Augustus to Nero were in one way or another related to the Julian and Claudian senatorial families.

Sources utilized in these pages may include:
  • Everett Ferguson's: Backgrounds of Early Christianity
  • Walker's: History of Christianity (out of print)

    (These links will take you to book detail pages at

  • home quodlibet journal theo blog sermons theology e-texts church history forum home